Song I

How Shall I Sing that Majesty

A General Song of Praise to Almighty God


The words to this famous hymn can be found below.  John Mason had a vision of the songs and splendour of heaven; he contrasts this with the inadequacy of his own praise.  We like to think that, when he wrote of 'that majesty which angels do admire', he may have been thinking of the tympanum over our south door showing Christ in majesty surrounded by angels (above).  But with God's inspiration he can 'bear a part with that celestial choir'.

The fourth verse below may reflect the saying of St Augustine of Hippo: 'God is an infinite circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere'.  All John Mason's hymns were written in the same metre, yet he can produce both the grandeur of How shall I sing that majesty and the gentleness of Now from the altar of my heart.  Together, they show Mason's strong sense of the greatness and the providence of God, His transcendence and yet His closeness.

The hymn's recent popularity may be partly due to the modern tune Coe Fen.  This is in the tradition of music for Trinity (a time to celebrate God's majesty) and its triple time and key signature of three flats are no coincidence.  Unusually, the composer, Kenneth Naylor, adds an extra bar before the final two lines of each verse, making us pause to increase the impact of these words.  Naylor (1931-91) was Director of Music at The Leys School, Cambridge, which is built on land called Coe Fen.

The first four verses in the right hand column in pale grey are what are now commonly sung; comparing them with Mason's first four verses, in the left hand column shows no significant differences.  His remaining eight verses are also shown below the first four, and one can see why some of them have fallen out of use!
1. 
How shall I Sing that Majesty 
    Which Angels do Admire? 
Let Dust in Dust and Silence lie, 
    Sing, Sing, ye Heavenly Quire. 
Thousands of Thousands stand around 
    Thy Throne, O God, most High; 
Ten Thousand times Ten Thousand sound 
    Thy Praise; but who am I?

2. 
Thy Brightness unto them appears,  
    Whilst I thy Footsteps trace; 
A Sound of God comes to my Ears; 
    But they behold thy Face. 
They Sing because thou art their Sun, 
    Lord, send a Beam on me; 
For where Heav'n is but once begun, 
    There Hallelujahs be.

3. 
Enlighten with Faith's Light my Heart,  
    Inflame it with Love's Fire; 
Then shall I sing and bear a part  
    With that Celestial Quire. 
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold, 
    With all my Fire and Light: 
Yet when thou dost accept their Gold, 
    Lord, Treasure up my Mite.

4. 
How great a Being, Lord, is thine,  
    Which doth all Beings keep! 
Thy Knowledge is the only Line 
    To sound so vast a Deep. 
Thou art a Sea without a Shore,  
    A Sun without a Sphere; 
Thy Time is now and evermore; 
    Thy Place is everywhere.

5. 
How good art thou, whose Goodness is 
    Our Parent, Nurse, and Guide; 
Whose Streams do water Paradise, 
    And all the Earth beside! 
Thine Upper and Thy Nether Springs  
    Make both thy Worlds to thrive: 
Under thy warm and sheltering Wings  
    Thou keep'st two Broods alive.

6. 
Thy Arm of Might, most mighty King,  
    Both Rocks and Hearts doth break: 
My God, thou canst do every thing 
    But what would shew thee Weak. 
Thou canst not cross thy self, or be  
    Less than thy self, or poor; 
But whatsoever pleaseth Thee,  
    That canst thou do, and more.

7. 
Who would not fear thy Searching Eye,  
    Witness to all that's true? 
Dark Hell and deep Hypocrisy 
    Lie plain before its view. 
Motions and Thoughts before they grow,  
    Thy Knowledge doth espy; 
What unborn Ages are to do,  
    Is done before thine Eye.

8. 
Thy Wisdom, which both makes and mends, 
    We ever much admire: 
Creation all our Wit transcends; 
    Redemption rises higher. 
Thy Wisdom guides stray'd Sinners home, 
    'Twill make the dead World rise,  
And bring those Prisoners to their Doom, 
    Its Paths are Mysteries.
1. 
How shall I sing that Majesty 
   Which angels do admire? 
Let dust in dust and silence lie; 
   Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir. 
Thousands of thousands stand around 
   Thy throne, O God most high; 
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound 
   Thy praise; but who am I?

2. 
Thy brightness unto them appears, 
   Whilst I Thy footsteps trace; 
A sound of God comes to my ears, 
   But they behold Thy face. 
They sing because Thou art their Sun; 
   Lord, send a beam on me; 
For where heaven is but once begun 
   There alleluias be.

3. 
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart, 
   Inflame it with love’s fire; 
Then shall I sing and bear a part 
   With that celestial choir. 
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold, 
   With all my fire and light; 
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold, 
   Lord, treasure up my mite.

4. 
How great a being, Lord, is Thine, 
   Which doth all beings keep! 
Thy knowledge is the only line 
   To sound so vast a deep. 
Thou art a sea without a shore, 
   A sun without a sphere; 
Thy time is now and evermore, 
   Thy place is everywhere.

9. 
Great is thy Truth, and shall prevail 
    To Unbelievers shame; 
Thy Truth and Years do never fail; 
    Thou ever art the same. 
Unbelief is a Raging Wave, 
    Dashing against a Rock: 
If God doth not his Israel Save, 
    Then let Egyptians mock.

10. 
Most Pure and Holy are thine Eyes, 
    Most Holy is thy Name; 
Thy Saints, and Laws, and Penalties, 
    Thy Holiness proclaim. 
This is the Devil's Scourge and Sting,  
    This is the Angels Song,  
Who Holy, Holy, Holy, Sing,  
    In Heavenly Canaan's Tongue.

11. 
Mercy, that shining Attribute,  
    The Sinner's Hope and Plea! 
Huge Hosts of Sins in their Pursuit,  
    Are drown'd in thy Red Sea: 
Mercy is God's Memorial,  
    And in all Ages prais'd; 
My God, thine only Son did fall,  
    That Mercy might be rais'd.

12. 
Thy bright Back-parts, O God of Grace, 
    I Humbly here Adore; 
Shew me thy Glory and Thy Face,  
    That I may praise Thee more. 
Since none can see thy Face and live,  
    For me to die is best; 
Thro' Jordan's Streams who would not dive,  
    To Land at Canaan's Rest?